Editorial: Florida should not make secret the names of foster parents

The Florida Capitol. SCOTT KEELER   |   Times
The Florida Capitol. SCOTT KEELER | Times
Published March 19, 2019

The same agency that keeps repeating the same mistakes managing Florida's child welfare system wants - of all things - more secrecy. The Florida Department of Children and Families supports legislation that would remove from public records the names of foster parents and others in their household. This would make it easier for child abusers to escape attention and for the state to avoid public scrutiny of its incompetence in protecting vulnerable children. Children and taxpayers deserve more accountability, not less.

The legislation, HB 1249, cleared its first House subcommittee last week and is co-sponsored by freshmen lawmakers Rep. Spencer Roach, R-North Fort Myers, and Rep. Toby Overdorf, R-Palm City. It would exempt the name of a licensed foster parent or applicant, and their spouse and any other adults in their household, from public records. Supporters say the measure is needed to protect foster parents from reprisal by biological parents or family members. Roach cited as justification an incident in August in Miami in which a biological mother shot a 77-year-old foster parent as the mother allegedly burglarized the home and tried to leave with her two children.

But there is no evidence that biological parents are combing public records to track down foster parents and do them harm. In the Miami case, DCF acknowledged that it released no personal information about the foster mother. A legislative staff analysis of the bill cited no other incidents, much less a pattern. And as a practical matter, the exemption ignores reality. The vast majority of biological families already know who the foster parents are and where they live, because they interact routinely at visitations, court hearings and in other settings.

Without public disclosure, how would Floridians know the state was placing at-risk children in safe, appropriate settings? Foster parents are licensed and paid by the state, effectively deputized to provide a safety net. Without disclosure, there is no public oversight over if and how well DCF is carrying out its licensing responsibilities. And by exempting the names of other adults who are in the household, the state would be throwing a blanket over anybody coming in and out the door. That's outright reckless, given that some of the worst abuse cases stem from the presence of paramours who live on-and-off in the home.

Florida law already balances privacy concerns and accountability in favor of foster families. It exempts plenty of information about a foster parent or applicant from public record, from where they live and work and where their children go to school to their photographs, birth dates, medical records - even the floor plans of their homes. Keeping the names secret would eliminate any sense of balance and make it virtually impossible for the public to shine a light on more than 23,000 children now in out-of-home care.

It would be one thing if the impossible were possible and DCF ran a perfect system. But there has been no shortage of tragedies over the decades involving children abused by caretakers, and no shortage of times that the state child welfare agency and its contractors have failed to do their jobs. If lawmakers are interested in improving the foster care system rather than hiding its weaknesses, they can start by giving the child safety net the resources it needs. This legislation is another attempt by the state to avoid being held accountable when it fails.